Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Ten things I wonder about my life next year

It's official! I'm leaving for the US in two weeks and will return to Cambodia around New Year's... but not to my status quo. Instead, I'm planning to move to the capital of Preah Vihear province, a small town about five hours away. I loved immersing myself in Khmer language and culture there and have often visited since then. But of course moving there long-term will be an adjustment.

I've been wondering for a while about the timing of my US trip and the team that I should join next, now that I'm no longer on the education team. So it's great to have both of those questions settled. At the same time, as I announce this news, I'm fielding questions that I've been contemplating myself. I'm posting some of my questions here with my best stab at their answers.

1. What exactly will I be doing? 

World Team's Preah Vihear (PV) team has many great things that I could get involved in: a high school dorm for students from low-income rural families, a Bible school for house church leaders in the villages, Bible studies and church plants in the villages, translation and creation of Christian resources, and trainings for Sunday Schools teachers. There are other possibilities like guest-teaching for education majors at a local college and teaching English to kids in town. I won't be able to invest significant time into every one of those. It sounds like early on, a priority will be visiting Bible school students and dorm alumni in their homes out in the villages, to encourage them and help them start more Bible studies. As I observe and dabble in other programs, hopefully I'll find my niche over time. For now, I'm also continuing my role as a language coach for other World Teamers in Cambodia, mostly remotely. 

A small group of dorm students discussing during a nutrition seminar I led in 2018

2. Where am I going to live?

I'm going to start out living with fellow World Teamers Jim and Carolyn Gabriels in their traditional Khmer wooden home while I adjust to life in PV. I'm so grateful they were willing - I feel very comfortable with them, and it makes my transition more gradual. The plan is that for at least the first six months, I'll share the rent for my Phnom Penh apartment, where my dear friend Rachana will be staying. That means I can leave most of my furniture here for now and will still have a bed available when I visit PP. I'll see what's available for rent in PV and eventually transition to my own place there... after that, I can stay in a guest room at the World Team office when in PP. 

Petting a neighbor's calf in front of the Gabriels' home during my 2016 visit

3. How much time will I spend in Phnom Penh?

The Gabriels and their teammates Joel and Sina recommended that I plan to visit the city about once a month. That will let me decompress, maintain friendships here, stock up on groceries (anything most Cambodians don't eat is probably not for sale in PV), manage errands and appointments, and meet my language coachees. I'm not sure how long each visit will be - probably between two and five nights. It depends partly on how much I need to do in each place and how much can be done remotely. I'm hoping to find a balance that will allow me to thrive, and I'm not sure yet what that will look like.

4. What will I drive?

I was initially assuming I'd need to buy a larger, more powerful motor scooter. My 50-CC Honda Today runs pretty well, but it bottoms out even on some speed bumps and can't handle rutted or flooded dirt roads. But Jim recommended that I keep it for now and plan to borrow his motor scooter and/or car for my trips to farther-out villages. My Honda Today is fine for getting around this town of 24,000; we'll see if I can make it work for a while or will want more freedom to go to the villages. Either way, I'll need a license for the first time after a decade here. (I don't even have a driver's license for motorcycles, let alone cars - I think licenses are only required for motos above 125 CC.)

Can you believe Silat and I beat the storm home that day?

5. Who will I spend time with?

I know some of the people that I hope to hang out with. Besides the four other World Teamers, who are some of my favorite people ever, I'd count one Cambodia YWAM staff (Silat) as a dear friend and am friendly with the other three as well as the three staff kids. (Can't wait to be the kids' "ming" again!) I was also excited to see my teammates' plans for following up with dorm alumni and Bible students; I enjoy several of them who lived in the dorm during my summer there. Turnover is inevitable - some friends are planning time away to study or get more experience, and several dorm alumni would like to return as dorm staff now that they've graduated from YWAM's Discipleship Training School. In short, I'm excited to renew existing relationships but I'll need to stay flexible and begin many new friendships. It will be a big change for me to have very few other foreigners around, and I'm expecting to feel lonely and out of place at times. But the Cambodians I know there are very gracious and I've been so glad to see the deep mutual trust they've built with my fellow American teammates.

6. What is God going to do?

I really don't know this one. If the past year didn't teach us that life is hard to predict, I don't know what would! What I do know is that when World Teamers first went there, Preah Vihear had about a dozen believers in the whole province. Now it has dozens of house churches! I believe God wants His children in Preah Vihear to mature, let truth permeate every area of their lives, and multiply as they share the good news of Jesus with their families and neighbors. I hope to come along for the ride. 

7. What new things will I need to learn?

A lot, I'm sure. How to change a tire. How to ride a manual moto. How to find my way around rural roads and villages that all look similar to me right now. What to do when my home is visited by a biting gecko or a vicious centipede or even (shudder) a snake. How to grocery shop for a month at a time. I'm going to be spending a lot of time in farming communities, and I can barely pick a mango or remember the word for "plough." My Khmer speaking will definitely need to improve as I'll have a lot more conversation time, and I hope to get better at understanding the PV dialect. I have a feeling next year will also stretch me spiritually and teach me new things about myself. I'm expecting a lot of growth opportunities!

Sometimes visitors do you a favor and eat each other. Photo credit: Holly Ferguson.

8. What will I do for fun?

One thing I'm excited about is the scenery - PV has more "mountains" (OK, foothills at least) than most of Cambodia. There are day trips in the area to waterfalls, a sort of lake, etc. During my summer there, I often had fun cooking Western food like tacos with help from my Khmer friends, who have mad kitchen skills (homemade tortillas? better than mine!) and flexible taste buds. We also played a lot of Nerts, a card game, so I'd like to stock up on card/board games that don't require a lot of English. Dorm activities included regular aerobics classes and dance parties. Cambodians in general are good at sitting around chatting without needing a lot of structured activities. I've always been an avid reader and have recently gotten into songwriting, two hobbies that are portable and can be done in solitude. (Though I'd love to try partnering with Cambodians to write a song in Khmer!) I'll be 2 1/2 hours from Siem Reap, a popular destination for my Phnom Penh friends as well as international visitors, so I'm expecting to spend some weekends there. There are many options, and who knows what else I'll discover?

9. Will I feel ready to move?

My US visits have ranged from three weeks to two years, and I've never felt fully "ready" to say goodbye to my family. So even though this trip (4.5 months) is longer than the last few, I'm sure my return will be bittersweet. Plus I'm nervous about all these unknowns. But I'm already excited and hoping to feel recharged and ready to jump in come January. I've felt drawn to PV since my first visit in 2016 and have wondered what it would be like to make it my home. Here's my chance.

10. Will I be OK?

There are so many ways to define "OK"-ness and so few guarantees about what next year holds. I don't think next year will always be comfortable or straightforward, though I do think I'll have a good group of people rooting for and helping me. 

This quote keeps coming to mind:

Next year I will need God in new ways, and in many of the same ways that I have always needed Him. And next year, He will be available for me, abundantly providing His presence and goodness. He goes ahead of me and He meets me wherever I am. That's really the only answer I need, for next year and for all the days leading up to it.

Friday, June 25, 2021

The fallout

In my previous post, I told how I'd taken some neighbors to the Christian hospital for some chronic health issues, resulting in the neighbors being sent to a different hospital to test for Covid. That was on a Tuesday, May 4 to be exact. I knew I'd have to self-quarantine at least until they got their results, and possibly a full two weeks. I was glad I'd spent minimal time with these neighbors before Tuesday, so I didn't think I'd exposed anyone else.

After the drama and exhaustion of Tuesday's escapades, Wednesday was a quiet way to begin my self-quarantine... until a late-afternoon phone call interrupted my online meeting. A government worker, confirming Auntie had tested positive. She'd listed my phone number and address when she tested. I told the government worker (a few times) that I lived alone, near but not with Auntie, whose home had many people in it. I hoped I wouldn't drag my building into the drama - some of my downstairs neighbors were already very concerned about Covid. I was glad it seemed to be just Auntie, who's about 60, and not Grandma, who's supposedly 95. It was plausible since I'd only heard Auntie coughing, but Grandma had been barely conscious since Monday.

Wednesday night, the director of the Christian hospital called me. "We've known it was a matter of time... but that was our first Covid-positive patient." Only one hospital in Cambodia is authorized to treat Covid patients, the one where we'd gone for testing. Other hospitals had been shut down for unwittingly treating Covid-positive people, and he was concerned that this one could be next. 

I couldn't get over the irony, or the draconian policy. "My first time ever referring patients... and I might get your whole hospital shut down? I feel terrible!" 

"Well, hopefully it doesn't come to that. The contact tracing folks have their hands full with cases skyrocketing citywide. And our staff were all fully vaccinated. Anyway, you had no way of knowing. But yeah, please pray we won't be closed."

Thursday morning, Day 2 of my self-quarantine, I got a message from a neighbor in my building. "They're locking down our street! Police are right outside our gate." 

I briefly panicked. I was still dog-sitting, which wouldn't be easy if neither I nor my neighbor could walk him. He was supposed to move into another family's home the following week. I called the family and asked them to come pick him up right away, wondering if they could even make it onto our street. They did, graciously and without issues. 

My neighbor ran out to stock up on produce for her family and me. She'd discovered that her helper used to surreptitiously hang out with Auntie's granddaughter "Kunthea" (both girls are 16) and others from the alley during breaks from cooking and cleaning. My neighbor, concerned for her mother's fragile health, no longer trusted the helper and was sending her back to her home village. So because I took these ladies to the hospital, this girl was fired. 

So reassuring!

The silver lining to this news is that it changed these neighbors' attitudes toward my getting involved with Auntie and Grandma. At first, they'd said, "You're putting our whole building at risk." Now it became, "Without you, we wouldn't have known that that girl was putting our whole building at risk." The other downstairs family's helper was friends with this helper but had generally stayed inside the gate. She was quarantined at home but kept her job. Even with a full-time job, three kids studying at home, and no helper, my neighbor was incredibly generous with me and the other two women on my floor. We received fruit or homemade treats almost daily. 

Orange (ripe despite the green peel), bananas, dried fish, and sweet potato pudding

Later Thursday morning, an ambulance with flashing lights arrived. It took not only Auntie, but Grandma and Auntie's granddaughter "Kunthea," who had also tested positive. Surprise! Three for three from our hospital trip. Others then had to be tested too - everyone else in their home and the alley, three apartment buildings totaling 68 families. I wondered if I'd have to test, since the local government had my number for Auntie and knew I'd taken her for testing. But they left me out of it.

The ambulance in front of their door, photographed from my balcony

By evening, I'd learned more:
1. The government locked down only the alley, not my entire street. So people in my building were free to come and go... except that my landlords' car was stuck. (They park their car behind our house, under the green grapevines shown above, and access it via the alley.) 
2. Security guards were on duty 24/7 in front of my building to keep an eye on the alley residents, who were allowed to mingle freely but not to cross the "caution" tape. 
3. The government distributed some staple foods to the locked-down families.
4. The three ladies went to a quarantine center at or near Aeon Sen Sok, a shopping mall near my house. 

Auntie's son said that the ladies were receiving food, water, and Ibuprofen but no further medical care. There were apparently no walls, so I pictured a canopy in the parking lot. That would be terrible! Early May is still Cambodia's dreaded hot season, and to be stuck in the heat, without even fans ... possibly needing a mask 24/7?... sounded torturous. And people can test positive for many weeks after symptoms end. For the first time, it sank in that I might be going to a quarantine center like this. 

I later learned that they were in a large air-conditioned room... a wedding hall, I think?... so "no walls" must have just meant no privacy. Much better, but cons included seriously underwhelming trash pickup, and germs from 200+ mingling maskless roommates.

Healthier inmates like Auntie and Kunthea were encouraged to go outside and exercise within the gate, which I've heard soon looked like a refugee camp, full of laundry lines and tarps. Kunthea says she misses the center because she got to dance, play hacky-sack, and eat plenty of food each day. Grandma was too weak to leave her bed. She's going to die, I thought. There's no oxygen, no medical care, and who knows what pre-existing conditions she has at age 95. She was often agitated and confused, thinking she was in a pagoda and crying out for her granddaughter. I just learned today that the Covid center eventually tracked down the homeless granddaughter and had her come care for Grandma.

I started to wonder about crime in these centers. Do you have to bring along your valuables every time you use the restroom or wash your clothes? What if the closest phone charger is out of your line of vision? How many assaults have happened in these centers that mix men and women and children who might be there alone? Are there security guards?

Saturday night, another ambulance came and took the four others who were left in this one-room home. The kids waved to me as I watched from the balcony. I was glad they were together; I didn't want the 13-year-old left home alone. I later heard other neighbors were taken too, but I never heard how many, where, or which day.

The second group were assigned to quarantine at a high school with fans instead of air conditioning and just eight people per classroom, which I'd much prefer. 

As the four left, I sent them a song I'd just heard the day before, "The Cambodia Blessing." I also sent it to two downstairs neighbors; it moved one deeply. She was self-quarantining after having spent five minutes outdoors giving rice to Auntie and Grandma the previous week. Her husband was stuck three hours away at his workplace; he'd usually come home every weekend but the highway was shut down for a month due to Covid. So her kids were unexpectedly isolated from them both, and the preschooler was not taking it well, despite relatives' best efforts. Her older relatives who live here were very anxious about Covid exposure through her and the helpers. (Imagine if she'd told them about my exposure.) She so deeply wanted her family to be OK.

It was my turn to feel anxious on Monday, when this neighbor asked me to get a Covid test Tuesday. Though the test results wouldn't be back until at least Wednesday evening, I pre-emptively packed Monday: it was the only thing I could control. Laptop? Too high of a theft risk. Kindle? Not sure. How many paper books could I read in 2-6 weeks of no-laptop quarantine? Could I handle serious ones or just fun ones in that setting? What apps would I need on my phone for urgent work things, and did I have room for them with my limited storage? Could I expect daily access to a charger? How many phone cards would I need with no wifi? What ant-proof snacks could I bring along from home? Maybe you can do this, I told myself. 

I tried to calculate the risk of testing positive. I'd received one dose of AstraZeneca, which is about 2/3 effective after dose #2, and then I'd touched the face of a Covid patient multiple times to put her mask back on and try to feed her, while spending eight hours with her and two other patients. Symptoms can take up to fourteen days to appear, and many patients (15%? 45%?) never develop symptoms. All in all, my odds seemed about 50/50. 

I prayed a lot. Lord, I know You're good no matter what, but please don't let me have Covid. I don't know if I can handle the center. But what if You want me to meet Cambodians who need the Gospel? What if this is Your way of teaching and refining me? God kept reminding me of more dramatic and dire situations... refugee camps, concentration camps, POW camps... where He'd shown Himself faithful to people over much longer periods. Don't trust yourself. Trust Me. I've got this. 

I felt peaceful on the drive to the testing center. When I arrived, the staff pointed to the signs. Cambodians test for free, but foreigners pay $100 per test - I'd been hoping for under $50. Plus $30 extra for a certificate. Unsure if I needed a certificate, I called my neighbor. I was just realizing she'd probably expect me to test on day 13 as well. Could I handle this stress again?

"You can skip the certificate," she assured me. 

"Well, the test is $100 for foreigners. I'd rather not test twice if I don't have to. Even if I test negative today, I'll keep quarantining until day 14, right? And even if I test positive, nobody else will be affected because I've been self-isolating ever since my exposure."

"Yeah, that's crazy expensive. Just wait and test on day 13 unless you develop symptoms."

I drove off, very relieved. Home had never looked so beautiful!

Soon Auntie started calling me. "Please send money, Grandma is sick! The doctors refuse to treat her unless we pay." The government was promising free medical care to all Covid patients, and I knew Auntie wasn't always a reliable source. But Auntie seemed more concerned with Grandma's swollen legs than her Covid symptoms, and wanted her on an IV (which many people here see as a cure-all). 

I confirmed with an American doctor and nurse that she shouldn't need an IV. But I wished I could hear from medical staff about Grandma's condition. I tried calling the Covid hotline, but they told me, "If you want to talk with a Covid patient, you can go to their quarantine center and meet them across the fence." That wasn't an option for either of us. 

Auntie persisted in calling me. "My husband is visiting tomorrow from the province. He can pick up money from your house and bring it to me. And if you don't believe me that Grandma is sick, ask her yourself!" She held up the phone to Grandma, who agreed she wanted medicine. But hearing Grandma's voice so strong actually reassured me... a week ago, Grandma's voice had been a frail whisper if she even responded. Clearly, Grandma had improved to some extent. In the end, I just said I couldn't help.

But could I help my neighbors in the alley? With no income for over a week, and little to no savings to begin with, they couldn't have much to eat beyond the government donations of rice and a few cans of fish. They weighed heavy on my heart. Yes, there were Phnom Penh residents in greater need and in longer lockdowns, but these families were visible from my kitchen, and my hospital trip had caused their lockdown. For several days, I tried to think of options since I was as locked down as they were.

A friend suggested that I involve my Khmer church down the street, where a lady agreed to coordinate relief packages. Donations came quickly from people at church and in my building, and though I'd agreed to cover any financial gaps, in the end there was money to spare without me. Volunteers packed vegetables and noodles to balance out the earlier government packages. On Friday afternoon, I broached the idea, and Sunday morning the families got their packages. A neighbor went up on our roof and livestreamed it for her family. The Khmer lady from church sent me ample documentation. The security guards were so happy with our efforts, they told us about two other locked-down areas nearby, where we were able to give similar packages (but with more protein... we miscommunicated about that the first time). 

Auntie called me that afternoon. "I just got home and I have nothing to eat. Even the rice we were given has gone bad. Can you help?" 

I had several thoughts:
1. Already?! She tested negative after just 11 days at the center! I wonder how far into her illness she was diagnosed.
2. Yikes, I gave her money once and now I'm pretty sure she'll never stop asking. What have I done? How did she survive before she found me?
3. Did the rice really go bad? She received around 25 kg (over 50 pounds) the week before quarantine. That should have lasted her family for months!
4. How sad that she just missed the handouts on her street, where there were extra bags that the security guards took home! But I have no confidence in the other neighbors to share with her. 

I really didn't know what to do since I was still quarantining, so I asked my generous neighbor downstairs for advice. "Don't worry, I'll give her food from my house," she assured me. 

The next day, Monday, guess who called? "Grandma's getting out of quarantine and she needs a ride home. She's standing in the sun." 

Me: "OK, I don't know how to help her. I can't leave my apartment. And I don't know her exact location." 

Auntie: "What am I supposed to do? I can't just leave her there."

Me: "Don't you know anyone else who could get her?"

Auntie: "Could you call a driver? Tell them that she's near Aeon Mall." 

I could see a lot of holes in that plan. On the rare occasions that I don't drive my moto, I usually use an app that sends random tuk-tuk drivers. The app doesn't let you give instructions like "Please meander around the neighborhood until you spot a frail elderly stranger who may or may not be lucid or even conscious. Then bring her to an unmarked alley that she probably won't recognize because she's mostly blind. P.S. She's just had Covid - does that bother you?" 

I racked my brain unsuccessfully for nearby friends with a car and enough Khmer to follow Auntie's very imprecise directions. I finally gave her the number of a tuk-tuk driver I knew and said, "You tell him where to go, and I'll pay him later." At least he'd be clear on the destination, if not the starting point or passenger. 

But she soon called again. "He's not picking up!" 

"OK, then I give up." I was trying to sleep off a headache and her voice was grating on me. Plus I was out of ideas. I later heard that this driver was busy taking his wife to the hospital, where she died that night from a mysterious fever. Grandma made it home somehow without my assistance. 

I returned for testing on Tuesday, feeling more optimistic after 13 days symptom-free and the return of Grandma and Auntie. No news is good news with Covid tests if you don't pay for the certificate, so after two days of silence, on Thursday my first stop out of quarantine was to assemble more packages. It was great to be back with humans! I sent an extra package from distribution #3 to Auntie's family, who were reunited at home by then.

Packing volunteer team at church for distribution #2

Even after that, the alley stayed closed - for nearly a month total. All the Covid patients had to self-quarantine for a week at home after their return. Auntie complained that this was even worse than the center, where at least they got regular meals and nobody judged her. Her neighbors were angry that she'd taken in Grandma during the city-wide lockdown and brought Covid and deprivation to the whole alley. And the security guards shouted loudly at her when she tried to have Grandma's homeless granddaughter move from the Covid center into their already-packed home while the alley was still locked down. 

When the time finally came, the neighbor kids left up a bit of red-and-white plastic "no crossing" tape that they'd repurposed as a volleyball net. :)

I know the tape is hard to see - but that's good because it used to be right here across the entrance!

Auntie still asks me for money and food, and I haven't exactly complied. But a friend and I gave some hand-me-down clothes and extra veggies. And I passed on advice that the young adults in her home apply for jobs at a nearby store that's hiring, since their household of 7 currently has no income. My friends' team which supports foster families is looking into whether her family could be a good candidate for their services, since she's fostering several grandkids including Kunthea. The social workers asked Kunthea, "Would you like to learn how to read?" She was so excited and keeps asking me when they're coming back to teach her. She's seriously the sweetest! I'd love for the kids to get this help and care, but the staff (like others) are already seeing red flags in Auntie's dishonesty and demanding attitude. I tried to warn Auntie to shape up and not waste this opportunity, but I'm not sure I got through to her.

It's still incredible to me that Grandma recovered from Covid. When I first prayed for her, I had so little faith that I'd see her healthy, but she's now back to walking and talking, and she seems less confused. She still misses her granddaughter, who hasn't been in touch since the alley reopened. 

When Auntie asked me again to help buy medicine for Grandma's chronic health issues, I told her, "I'm still not giving you money. But I'm happy to take you both back to the Christian hospital now that you don't have Covid." 

For some reason, Auntie wasn't into that idea. Can you blame her for not wanting a rerun?

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Adventures with strangers

Some people think life in Cambodia must be constantly exotic and inspiring. Let the record show: despite being far from home, my life is often pretty mundane. In April, walking the dog I was sitting was the highlight of most days, a break from typing, reading, and Zoom meetings from my living room. Sound familiar?

But every now and then, a day hurls enough comedy, tragedy, and adventure at me to make up for months of monotony. 

One of those surprising days happened two weeks ago Tuesday. And it all started with walking the dog.

Remember the dirt alley next to my house that I passed through four times a day on Agrippa's walks? The one where kids always stopped us to say hi? I started recognizing more neighbors there. I stopped a few times in front of an open door where a woman inside looked at me. I smiled. She didn't.

One day, there was a much older woman sitting in front of the door. "What animal are you kids looking at?" she asked. I realized she was nearly blind. "A dog," they replied. "Oh, I like dogs too," she replied warmly.

The next afternoon, both women were waiting by my gate for us. "Could you please give me money?" the elderly one asked. "I don't have a family. I need food and medicine. I'm 95 years old." I was startled - I’ve never seen people begging near my house, though my neighbors have a wide range of income levels. 

Puzzled, I looked at "Auntie" for verification, who nodded while "Grandma" sat serenely, inches from Agrippa's massive frame. "I'm not her relative. I just found her a couple days ago, sleeping on the street. I felt bad for her so I invited her into my home. Her only living relatives are teenage street kids with no phone numbers. She got stuck in our area because of the lockdown and I can't get her back to them. I've been trying to buy medicine every day for her but it's expensive. She has a chronic condition." Auntie gestured at evidence of her guest’s poor health. I was embarrassed; Grandma wasn’t.

Was Grandma really 95, a quarter-century past Cambodia's life expectancy? When had she become this vulnerable, and how had she landed at Auntie’s? Whether or not the whole story was true, clearly neither woman was wealthy. Nor were they closely related: I couldn’t imagine a Cambodian disrespecting their mom enough to claim she was actually a homeless stranger.

I gave Grandma some money and offered to take them soon to a Christian clinic that partners with churches and NGO’s to offer discounted rates for low-income Cambodians. Though it was my first time referring patients, I was much more comfortable covering medical care than giving cash like I’d just done.

I returned to Auntie's house two days later with a medical form. Grandma was lying on the floor shirtless with her back to the door. She was barely conscious and didn't move the whole ten minutes that the rest of us struggled with her form. 

"She won't eat or drink. She wants her grandkids," Auntie told me.

"Should we still take her to the clinic? It’s an hour away and it doesn’t take overnight patients. Maybe she should just rest."

"No, she needs a doctor. If she gets better, I can take her to look for her grandkids… she knows their general area. And I have a throat tumor, see? It’s why I can’t work. I have to take meds every day or I'll die." My medical vocab isn't that great, and Auntie's raspy voice was hard to understand through her mask. So even if Auntie had a correct diagnosis, I’m not sure I heard it right.

"OK, we'll ask the doctor to look at you too." I asked if I could pray for them both, and nobody minded. I kept praying that evening, feeling very hesitant and out of my depth. If nothing else, I’ll get to know them better through this trip, I told myself. I’ve been wanting to reach out more to neighbors and show Jesus' love. This could be my chance. I practiced a brief Gospel presentation just in case.

The next morning, it took us 30 minutes to get a groggy Grandma into a shirt, shoes, a mask, and a neighbor’s tuk-tuk (motorcycle taxi). "The doctor will give you an IV so you'll feel better!" Auntie told her brightly. Auntie's 16-year-old granddaughter "Kunthea," who'd come along to help out, nodded. Auntie's cheerfulness faded as we drove on and on. "Does this hospital have good doctors?" 

"Yes, very good. And we can trust them to tell us the truth." I just hoped our trip wasn't in vain. Auntie had wanted to let Grandma sleep in, and we arrived 90 minutes later than the recommended time for new patients. Thankfully, it wasn't too crowded. The staff asked us the standard questions about Covid exposure and symptoms, took our temperatures, let us in, and helped Grandma into a wheelchair - what a relief!

Signing in was comical. I misread the handwritten Khmer on our first form and copied Grandma's name wrong. Her medical history was blank. Same with her address and phone number. For her birthdate, I wrote 1925, shocking the receptionist. Her health complaints were vague. I felt like the kind, polite staff weren't sure what to do with us.

Next, I joined Grandma and Kunthea in the waiting area, sending Auntie inside to register. "But I can't write!" she protested.

"OK, then dictate to the receptionist."

Ten minutes later, she hadn't emerged. Instead, the receptionist came to ask if we could help tell her Auntie's info. I couldn’t, and neither could Kunthea. "What do you mean, you don't know your grandma's name?” asked the startled receptionist. “What do other people call her?" Kunthea shrugged shyly. (Later Auntie told me Kunthea went to elementary school but had trouble learning.)

"Auntie knows all this. Can't you just ask her?" I pleaded. 

"I can't. She's already inside." I was baffled, but the receptionist had already walked away. Later, we learned Auntie had been coughing and they’d sent her to the Covid isolation area. I told the staff that Auntie’s cough was probably from her chronic throat condition, but they said to go ahead with Grandma’s appointment and meet Auntie at the end. What choice did I have?

Kunthea smiled when I returned to the waiting area. "Just now, someone was telling us about Jesus. I like hearing about him. I used to go every week to a kids' program near my house. People told stories and gave us snacks, but now they've stopped meeting." 

Delighted, I asked if she remembered any stories about him, but she said no. "I love stories about Jesus too," I told her. "Maybe we can read one together today." 

Grandma's turn came to check vital signs. To everyone's chagrin, she kept pulling off her mask. I put it back on, feeling bad for her. It was my fault she was going through this discomfort, and I still wasn’t sure the clinic would be able to relieve her symptoms. 

"Has she eaten or drunk anything today? You need to make her," the nurses admonished us as they sent us back out. We tried, with other patients looking on across the waiting area, but Grandma was too stubborn. Kunthea, on the other hand, was happy to share my snacks and water. "I usually get to eat just once or twice a day. What about you?" Oof. No wonder she's so thin. 

They called Grandma back in to take a blood sample. Grandma was not happy. Neither were the nurses, when they saw her low oxygen levels. They consulted with each other, then took her temperature. She'd passed the temperature check at the entrance, but now she was definitely feverish. "Take Grandma to isolation. You can meet Auntie there." 

A friendly isolation nurse asked me, “Auntie seems like a really kind person. Is she Christian?”

“I don’t think so…” I asked Auntie and she said that she was. I was surprised - I thought I’d seen a Buddhist shrine in her home. She added that she misses her old church and can’t read the Bible on her own. I offered to read a Bible story aloud later and she seemed pleased.

The nurse returned with our receipts and told me, “Please take them both for a Covid test, pronto. Let us know the results." Auntie and I reassured an anxious Kunthea that needing a test didn’t necessarily mean you’d be positive.

As we loaded Grandma back into the tuk-tuk, the staff reminded us, "Please go right away to the Khmer-Soviet Hospital!" 

The driver turned to me, alarmed. "Why do you need to go there?" These days, it's used exclusively for Covid testing and treatment. I told him tests were needed, and he grew agitated. "Don't tell them I was your driver! They'll lock me up too! I'm not going to that place!" 

"No, we don't have Covid," Auntie snapped. "Everyone's fine. We're going home. And we’re dropping off Grandma on the way." She muttered about the strict hospital staff, started a rapid phone conversation, and occasionally slapped Kunthea, making me wince. Every five minutes, Auntie coughed, making the driver wince. Kunthea was squished up front next to him. Grandma was squished between Auntie and me. Whatever germs were present, we were sharing them all.

Grandma's hand resting on my leg on the way back

I didn't argue with Auntie. It was already 11:30, and we’d been together since 8. We were all tired and thirsty. Was it OK to buy water on the way if we might have Covid? What about lunch? How long would we have to wait for tests? Would our driver abandon us and leave us to prop Grandma up for hours? Could we find another driver willing to pick us up from the testing center? I was overwhelmed, but I knew they needed these tests. 

I let us go all the way home, right past the Covid testing center and 30 minutes farther. As we piled out into the crowded alley, rumors started flying before I could even pay the driver. "Is it Covid?" someone asked. 

"Of course not!" Auntie retorted. “That’s ridiculous!” 

Once we'd gotten Grandma into the house, I pulled her aside. "Eat lunch and take a nap, but we’re going at two for Covid tests." To my surprise, Auntie didn’t argue.

Fortified by lunch and water, I booked a new driver with a bigger tuk-tuk so Kunthea could sit in the back with us. He kindly agreed to wait with us so Grandma could stay in the tuk-tuk. I was so grateful! Kunthea and I took turns guarding Grandma’s side of the tuk-tuk since she kept trying to stand and threatened to tumble to the ground. Our driver seemed remarkably unfazed, even with two terrified testees gasping and wheezing loudly nearby.

The staff said they couldn't test Grandma and Auntie, who hadn't brought ID along to verify their address and phone number. “But you have to – another hospital sent us here and said they have to be tested!” Meanwhile, the Christian hospital was calling me to ask if the tests were completed. We finally convinced them to list my contact info instead. After that, Auntie and Kunthea quickly made it through the line, and the staff tested Grandma right inside the tuk-tuk. Amazing!

On the way back, Auntie was desperate to drop Grandma off. I told her we should wait for the test results before sending her somewhere new, but Auntie directed the driver to another part of town. She called someone and yelled for a while before giving up and telling the driver to go home. “They’re still locked down,” she sighed, defeated.

I flipped my Bible open to Mark 5, where Jesus heals the dead girl and the sick woman. It was so perfect, my eyes welled with tears. I don't think Auntie was really able to concentrate on my narration, but she told me it sounded pretty. I told them, "Jesus loves old people and young people, people who are sick for a long time and a short time, people with and without a family to help them. He even called the penniless, sick woman his daughter."

When we got back, Auntie started telling neighbors, “It's fine, we tested negative. I told you we would!” I wasn't sure when to expect results, but I knew she didn’t have them yet. She invited me inside to sit and chat, and I thought, Why not? If they have Covid, I’ve already had plenty of exposure to them today. So I sat with her family for ten minutes, sipping on the cool water they brought me. 

A man around Auntie’s age coughed frequently. His skin was covered in red circles, indicating he’d done cupping recently. Auntie told the hospital she didn’t know anyone with symptoms. This is crazy. Why did she want to go with us if she was afraid of testing? A pale young man, shirtless with a necklace and an asymmetrical haircut, asked about my age, my marital status, and if he could add me on Facebook. I almost refused, but I let him send a request. A young woman with tattoos, probably his sister, asked, “So you helped today because of Jesus?”

"Yes! He's the reason I have hope, the reason I want to show love to Cambodians!" They told me they were "all three" religions - Christianity, Buddhism, and... something else I didn't recognize. I summarized the story I’d read that afternoon with the three women, and told them a one-minute version of what Jesus has done for us, the first time I’ve shared with a group. They listened attentively. Then I went home, took a hot shower, boiled my clothes, and disinfected my bag and its contents. That's when I realized I'd never told Auntie's family about the results not being in yet.

I spent most of the evening on the phone. My landlady Pheak asked me to self-quarantine until I knew the test results in a day or two. My neighbor Rachana kindly agreed to walk Agrippa for me. The isolation nurse from this morning and the young man (Auntie's son) both asked me to verify Auntie's story about already receiving negative test results. I’m so glad I added him! Now I can communicate with their family. I asked him to have the whole family stay inside while waiting for results. On behalf of his family, he thanked me again for my help. Thanks for what? My impression is that nobody with Covid wants the government to know, unless they need serious medical attention. I wondered if Auntie was ranting about my meddling.

I was sad but not surprised the next evening to learn that all three women were positive. But there were more surprises ahead. My next two weeks would be homebound, but far from mundane.

***to be continued***

Friday, April 30, 2021

Locking down with a new roommate

When my roommate moved out last July, I wondered, "Should I look for someone new?" While I'd never wanted to live alone, I was a bit commitment-shy. I work mostly from home in general, a lot more people have been working from home because of Covid, and it seemed like an intense adjustment to be together 24/7. Since my rent is affordable, I decided to wait until I found someone I knew well.

Then lockdown started last month, and to my surprise, two days later a new roommate arrived. My first male one, at that!

As roommates go, he's been pretty easy. He's laid-back and social. He loves how I cook chicken, and he never complains if I leave dishes in the sink. He doesn't mind if I have work to do, but while he's the strong silent type, he's always up for spending time with me.

Yup, Agrippa is a great dog.

This wasn't my first time sitting for him, but it felt different. Previously, I've watched him at his owners' house while they went on vacation for a few days. This time, his new owner dropped him off at my house before heading to the US for a few months. She planned to leave him with another family I know, but discovered he had a fungal infection on his rear that was contagious to kids unless they washed their hands well. Understandably, with a 7-year-old who loves lying all over the dog, they were hesitant, so I agreed to take him until he recovered. Today, the first day lockdown was lifted, he moved over there (another surprise - I thought I had about a week left). 

On a Thursday four weeks ago, his owner asked me to watch him, the same day that we started a city-wide lockdown. On Saturday, outdoor exercise was banned. On Sunday, Agrippa arrived. On one hand, lockdown seemed like a perfect time for dog-sitting... he wouldn't be lonely and I wouldn't be away when he needed to be let out. On the other, I wasn't sure about this "no-exercise" thing. Agrippa has lived with foreigners all of his nearly five years. He's used to being walked mornings, afternoons, and (very briefly) evenings. And while my landlords later gave me a key to the rooftop for rainy days, Grip thought it was too clean to poop on.

But he loved being off-leash in an open area!

In Khmer culture, he's an anomaly, even though German Shepherd mixes are really common here. But Khmer dogs are usually tied up, locked inside a gate, or roaming free, not taken for walks. So I wasn't sure "I have to walk my dog" would count as an exception to the policy, and I wasn't sure I had an alternative. So I braved the streets with him, hoping that if I stuck with quiet streets close to home, wore a mask, and social distanced, I could get away with it. I soon discovered that...

1) The few police that passed us didn't care, and

2) Walking a dog is difficult when the neighbor dogs aren't used to it. 

Many dogs are raised to guard and protect their homes and owners, and they take this duty seriously, often chasing passersby well beyond the property line. It's one reason I don't like jogging alone (there's some safety in numbers) and am always ready to slow to a walk if I see a dog approaching me. One of my landlords' dogs feels this way even about people, and as a result is always separated from the renters by a chain-link fence. Last week he clawed a little boy, the great-nephew of his owners, who has lived on my side of this fence since before the dog was born. He barks at anything that moves. But intruder dogs are especially suspect, for him and for others in the neighborhood.

Soon my neighbor, the one whose son got clawed, gave me a stick. "Use this to help break up the dog fights," she told me. "Otherwise it's too dangerous to walk him by yourself." I felt empowered, but even with the stick, I was experiencing multiple adrenaline rushes (or "cardio bursts"?) per walk. I experimented with various streets near my house, but most of them had dogs that would try to attack Agrippa, and confrontations seemed inevitable when both ends of my block had pairs of aggressive dogs. Grip is great at staying calm to a point, but when they get too close, he'd lunge back at them or wriggle out of his collar, running off to safety. Would he ever engage in an all-out battle? I didn't think so, but I didn't want to find out. 

Then I tried the alley.

Looking back at my tall green building from the far side of the alley

By cutting through the alley next to my house, I could get to an adjacent street and continue on a loop where the few dogs soon left Agrippa in peace. I rarely jog or drive that way since the alley isn't paved, but it made our walks so much more enjoyable. 

Faithful greeters

We weren't the only ones who preferred this route. The kids in this alley had been missing a playful Golden Retriever, Mango, who moved away a week before Agrippa arrived. I made the mistake of telling them he was friendly and telling them "Wash your hands!" instead of just saying "Don't touch," and soon it was too late - they'd all rush up to him each afternoon, disregarding instructions. (At least they mostly avoided his infected rear.) I was so happy to get to know a few of the kids that I'd often seen playing in front of my building - I don't usually hang out there like Mango and his owners did. Within a couple weeks, they were telling me stories and giving me hugs. Teens were stopping us to ask questions about what he ate and how much he cost. One of the worst "culprits" was my downstairs neighbor's helper, whom I barely knew before Agrippa arrived. We'd get to the gate and she'd hold him hostage for several minutes of petting. It took forever to get past them and start our walks. I didn't really mind. In fact, I relished the idea that in lockdown of all times, I was connecting (however slightly) with all these new people. 

The helper and another downstairs neighbor coming to say hi...

... and to pick sour mangoes from the tree down below (why have I never done that?)

I've always heard that babies and dogs are a great way to start conversations on walks. It's true! All throughout our route, neighbors would stare and comment. "Yikes, he's so big!" "Does he bite?" A few picked up their children or backed away looking concerned. They were torn between responding to him as a threat (a large, unfamiliar German Shepherd approaching them) and as a novelty (a dog on a leash with a foreigner). I kept calling out, "Don't worry, he's gentle! He doesn't bite!" And gradually, they got used to us. 

One grandma would sit in her hammock out front with a grandson, telling him "Look at the dog!" Others taught me the word for "German Shepherd" and told me about their love for dogs, or asked me why I knew Khmer. Kids asked me, "What did he eat today?" and "Is he a police dog?" and "Does he need a leash because he was hit by a car?" Still others, complaining that "Agrippa" was a hard and unusual name (can you blame them?), found all kinds of ways to mangle it. They often settled on "Kiki," which is kind of like the middle syllable repeated, and a common way in Khmer to call a dog toward you. I even saw a few other dog walkers - not on the streets, but at the tiny park a half-mile away. I realized Khmer people had a broader range of attitudes toward dogs than I'd previously assumed. 

Meeting a friend's dog at the park

I wasn't sure how long it would take Agrippa to recover from his fungal infection. About ten days in, I took him to the vet, who said he was doing much better but needed to return in 2 weeks. I decided to do that follow-up appointment next Tuesday before passing him onto the next family. I didn't mind the extra time with him, though he didn't love being blown dry after his weekly baths (treatments for the fungus) and had a special knack for spitting out his pills no matter how well I buried them in chicken. 

We tuk-tuked through flooded streets and past police barricades to get to the vet

Walking Agrippa was less intense than my occasional HIIT workouts and twice-a-week jogs, but also more fun... and more consistent, so probably as good for me overall. Compared to driving or jogging, I had time to slow down and notice faces and flowers, puppies and produce vendors (forced to go mobile during lockdown). I discovered a beautiful, massive vegetable garden just 2 blocks away, and a small recycling center even closer, where some of Phnom Penh's poorest live and work. I always try to smile at the "Aichai" workers when they go by, but I never thought of them as my literal neighbors. Last week, when the government allowed exercise again, a neighbor from my building joined me on several walks. Across from the recycling center, a home/restaurant had a sign: "Mangoes, 1500 riel per kilo" (17 cents a pound). We sat and watched while a grandma and her grandkids picked 8 pounds of mangoes for us, as another granddaughter entertained her baby sister and laughed at Grip for drinking rainwater from a bucket.

Walking Agrippa led me straight into one of the biggest adventures I've had here, one that's still unfolding, which is the reason he left early. I'll probably post about that story soon. (Update: Here's the sequel!) But while most days with him weren't thrilling, he brought warm fuzzies to lockdown. Thanks, Grip! 

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The case of the disappearing produce

 The answer was obvious - why was she denying it?

I was already frazzled. I was suddenly cooking dinner for six people, hoping to drop off some of the food before biking with a friend at 5. I dragged myself out in the mid-afternoon heat to buy groceries. My first stop, for meat at the grocery store, was quick. My third stop, for fruit at the open-air market, was quick. But the middle one, for vegetables, took longer. For one thing, I was buying a lot more veggies than usual. For another thing, "Auntie" was extra chatty that day. 

As her moy or loyal customer, I've been buying from Auntie for over three years. She knows I always prefer my fabric bags to her plastic ones, she gives me fair prices, and she smiles at me good-naturedly, even when I make dumb mistakes in Khmer. But she's less of a talker than I initially expected. I've never felt the closeness with her that I did with my pre-2015 seller, Little Sister, who patiently conversed with me in Khmer and still remembered specifics about me when I visited years later. Still, if Auntie's not too busy, we’ll exchange a friendly comment.

Saying goodbye to Little Sister

On Saturday, Auntie sighed that customers were down due to Covid. I told her I was buying extra to cook for a crowd, but it was my new bag that got her attention: bright blue canvas from a nearby supermarket, sturdier and bigger than my usual bags. 

"This is from Thai Huot?" 

"Yes, have you been there before?"

"I live near it. How much did it cost?"

"Ninety cents, but I can use it a long time." She was silent. I knew that must sound like a lot to her for something that just holds food. Unlike supermarkets which charge 10 cents, traditional markets can still give away free plastic bags, though they're pretty thin and flimsy. Full of imported goods, Thai Huot probably wasn't in her price range. 

"Do you live with your daughter?" I tried to continue the conversation. Her daughter sometimes helps sell.

"Yes, with all five of my kids."

"Everyone still lives at home? Isn't your daughter married?" 

"Yes, but she still lives with me. And my husband. He lost his arm in a moto crash and had to stop working as a carpenter. Our lives are hard. How much money do you make?"

A typical question here for foreigners, and not my favorite, but I gave an approximate answer anyway to show her that I valued our relationship. She packed up my bright-blue bag and accepted my $5 payment, much higher than most of her customers would spend at once.

Our conversation continued another minute or two before I reluctantly pulled away. Wow, maybe after three years, I was finally getting to know her! 

After grabbing a dragonfruit from the fruit seller, I continued home, only to realize my veggies were missing. Silly me, they must still be with Auntie! Come to think of it, I couldn't remember loading the bag onto my moto. I sheepishly drove back, knowing she'd laugh at me. 

Auntie was busy out front, so I went to the scale where she’d weighed and loaded up my veggies. She stared at me in confusion. "Do you need something else?" 

Hadn't she noticed? "I forgot to take my veggies with me. Did you see them?" 

"No, you took them with you."

I looked around her stall in disbelief. Nothing blue in sight. Now other customers were staring at me too. 

My mind raced. Maybe I'd left the bag by the stairs up to my apartment. Maybe on the shoe rack outside my apartment. Maybe... 

Maybe I was already late cooking dinner, and I needed those veggies NOW.

I drove off in a frenzy to check at my building. Definitely no veggies. They had to be with Auntie! Why would she steal them? How short-sighted, to steal a bag of veggies and forever lose a moy. Two Khmer friends were there, and I explained the situation. They looked at me skeptically. "We don't think your moy would do that to you." But where else could the vegetables be? I even checked with the fruit seller, knowing I'd only dismounted my moto for a second to take money out of the seat. How could anyone have stolen this bright, heavy bag from the hook beneath my handlebars? 

I returned half a block to Auntie.

"You're back! You couldn't find them?" 

"No, Auntie. Could you please look again one more time? Maybe you just didn't see them." I pleaded with her, convinced I hadn't taken them with me. Her denial made me think she'd intentionally taken them and distracted me, hoping I'd carelessly drive off without them. I knew that directly accusing her wouldn't end well - she'd never admit wrongdoing, and I might even make others around us suspect her, which would fill her with shame and anger. My only hope was to offer her a way to save face and restore the situation. 

"They're not here. You took them. I already told you. Do you need to buy everything again?" I loaded up the plastic basket again, angrily picturing her inwardly mocking me. "Sure, whatever," I muttered flusteredly. "I'm already late making dinner. My guests are coming." I hope you're happy, making $10 on me in one day. You'll never have my business again. I bet your husband never lost his arm. And if you have five kids at home, why is only one ever at your stall? I raced home with the veggies, missing the bike ride but calming down in time to enjoy the evening's visitors.

I'd love to clear her name, but I can't see another plausible explanation. I don't know if she planned from the beginning to be extra-chatty in hopes that I'd forget, or if she just saw me distracted and went with the flow. She probably hoped that she was the first of five stops so I wouldn't be sure where I lost the veggies. 

Most crimes in Phnom Penh are crimes of opportunity: picking someone's pocket on a crowded street, stealing a moto from an open gate during a noisy monsoon rain, running an errand for the boss and giving back too little change. Petty thieves have taken my purse, camera, and helmet. If it seems low-risk, some Cambodians will place loyalty to family and close connections ("this can help us pay the bills or get ahead") above honesty with a more distant connection. Auntie's snatch from a moy was unusual, but part of a broader pattern of corruption here that many of my friends decry as unfortunate but inevitable. Few would feel guilty about dodging taxes or sneaking through a red light. Paying bribes is often essential for getting things done. Playing the system is much easier than fixing it. 

I've forgiven her, but I haven't gone back. Two Khmer friends recommended that I not return to her, confirming my instinct. One said that though I could buy from her occasionally, the moy relationship can't be restored, and lots of other vendors could use my business. The traditional Khmer way is not to pursue truth and apologies: it's to pretend everything's OK until you can't, and then sever ties, usually permanently. I've felt awkward shopping at other stalls near hers - I'm sure she sees me sometimes, so I just try to go to the farthest one and avoid looking in her direction. 

I feel for Auntie, though. As she well knows, five dollars means so much more to her than to me. The difference between our lives weighs on me. Writing this post made me imagine her life. She's old enough to remember the late 1970s Khmer Rouge era, where betrayal was rampant and deceit was key to survival. Children were brainwashed to rat on resisting relatives. Doctors trying to avoid execution tried to pass for illiterate farmers. Parents and older siblings risked death to pocket food from the fields for starving toddlers. I've heard several Cambodians bemoan this period's devastation of community trust to this day. What did that time teach a young Auntie? How many of these lessons got her through the '80s and '90s, in a nation crushed by economic collapse and guerilla warfare? How is she passing them on to her children in this latest widespread crisis?

I'm pretty sure telling people "Just have integrity" won't do much. So what could I do? Obviously, I can promote external accountability by checking that I have my purchases before I leave and avoiding repeat business with those who rip me off. But heart change is slower and harder. I can do my best to model integrity. I can try casting vision, pleading with teachers and parents to teach the next generation differently than they were taught. I can pray for the Holy Spirit to give people new hearts that want to love and imitate the God of grace and truth. And I can help disciple Cambodian believers to bring their whole lives under His authority, trusting that He will provide all their needs as they live uprightly. It's not easy for Cambodian Christians to be honest here in a sea of deceit, but it sure stands out when they do.